There is much discussion among ornithologists and birdwatchers on the status of the tufted pua pua (Ardea megacristacorax). While some consider it extremely rare, others assert that it must be extinct. Still others scoff at mentions of its existence, saying it is an imaginary bird.
Its geographic range is along the eastern flank of the Andes, with reports from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.
Assigned to the Ardea genus
The tentative classification is based on its size: 100cm or more in length, and wing spans exceeding 120cm. Its closest relative is thought to be cocoi heron, although the habitat and geographic range of the latter, a diurnal heron, is much more widespread. Of crepuscular or nocturnal behavior, the tufted pua pua makes its presence known most frequently through its call: a prolonged puuuuua puuuuuua.
Interestingly, when heard, the tufted pua pua is never seen. And when seen, its call is not heard.
Its habitat, like that of other herons, is in the environs of water, usually running water, and most sightings have been made above 500m. It is thought to eat fish and amphibians, although it is also reported to be a terrestrial hunter.
Its name megacristacorax derives from the prominent (mega) crest or tuft (crista) and the raven-like (corax) behavior.
The original source of information is a tribe that has also seemed to disappear
The tufted pua pua is a key character in Maralabua worldview. The Maralabua, although never widespread themselves, had a strong influence on folklore and shamanic practices throughout the Andean region. Among these practices are multi-day rituals in which psychotropic substances are consumed. Most reports of the call of the tufted pua pua have been associated with such ceremonies in the Maralabua tradition.
Tufted pua pua, guardian and guide to the dead
The tufted pua pua is a psychopomp in Maralabua tales and is said to appear only at the death of a great shaman. It does not call at these times, because its mission renders it mute.
This suggests that the tufted pua pua was never abundant, for the death of a great shaman would happen at most once in a generation.
The few sightings, the asynchrony of vocalizations and sightings, and its central mythological role have led many to conclude that the tufted pua pua is not real.
For these researchers, its characteristics are simply a composite to support legend
The tufted pua pua is the threshold creature, in so many ways…
It mediates between the dead and the living, between the unconscious and conscious, and between knowing and that pregnant moment of all unknowing.
It appears solely to facilitate passage, and only for shamans– those who already master that passage between dead and living, unconscious and conscious, knowing and unknowing.
It inhabits ecosystems of river margins in the Andean wet and cloud forests- threshold between river and jungle, between mountains and lowlands.
The only photo (of an imaginary bird?)
The most recent and best documented information comes from a graduate student in ethnobotany who had been separated from his companions and subsequently disappeared. He was feared dead, but was found five years later, bedraggled and confused. He carried a camera, which was of a make and age (a Зени́т-C) that supported his claim that it was not his.
The student explained that a female shaman had taken him as an apprentice near the ancestral land of the Maralabua. The camera, with a completely exposed roll of film, had come into her possession following the death of a great shaman (and prior to the arrival of the student). Once developed back in the United States, the photos were either all black or all white, except for this single shot.
This muddled account casts doubt on its veracity
Nonetheless it is the only known image of the tufted pua pua.
If, like me, you’re fascinated by imaginary animals, do let me know. And check back here as I’ll be writing about more of them.